Harvest Moon: The Winds of Anthos Review - Screenshot 1 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

If the 'Uncanny Valley' is the term for something being almost-human-but-not-quite, then Harvest Moon: Winds of Anthos is in the Uncanny Stardew Valley. It's so close to being a really good farming sim game, but doesn't quite manage to hit the mark. However, for the first time in the turbulent and confusing history of Natsume's Harvest Moon games, it's actually... fun.

The story is the same old, same old: the Harvest Goddess disappears after some catastrophic geographical event, and it's up to us to restore her and the world through the power of farming. The twist here is that a volcano erupted, and Ms. Goddess decided to build a bunch of walls around all the villages, thus both protecting them and isolating them in one fell swoop. You'll have to dismantle the walls, befriend the Sprites living inside them, and revitalise the towns within, mostly by completing various fetch quests. The story doesn't make a lot of sense — everyone is very chill about getting separated from their families for a decade — but it's good enough to get started with.

Harvest Moon: The Winds of Anthos Review - Screenshot 2 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

If you've played the previous games, then you might be excited or disappointed to hear that the mutated and seasonal crops are back, as well as the need to collect seeds from Harvest Wisps hidden in the world. Somehow, in Winds of Anthos, this previously tedious busywork is actually an enticing reason to explore the gigantic map — and it's been improved, too, with map tags and markers for specific seeds making them much easier to find. You'll also discover rare crops, fish, tree fruits, and tameable animals through exploration, as well as mines, each one providing unique metals and ores that you'll need to complete quests and unlock upgrades.

Mining is pretty surface-level in Winds of Anthos — hit rocks and dig soil to find stuff — but dowsing with the 'B' button gives you a highlighted radius of where the good stuff is. Smaller circles mean rarer ores, and medium-sized circles could be anything from ore, to a ladder, to a hole that'll drop you a few floors at the cost of stamina. The grind is just about interesting enough to make up for the dull and repetitive mine interiors, and with hundreds of floors to get through (plus a checkpoint on every 10th floor), it'll take you a while to get to the bottom of each one.

Harvest Moon: The Winds of Anthos Review - Screenshot 3 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Compared to mining and exploration, farming and animal husbandry take quite a backseat. Most of the story quests require materials found in the mines, with the occasional onion or turnip here and there, so you would be forgiven for thinking that crop-growing was all about making money. Nope! The crops sell for a pittance, and fishing is vastly more lucrative. So, cooking, then? Well, the stamina meter in the game empties pretty quickly, it's true, but the food recipes don't really get good until the mid game, so you're better off just scarfing 20 apples instead of cooking something.

So, what is the point in farming, then — especially when the game offers a frankly overwhelming selection of highly specific crops? We can accept the difference between onions and red onions, but why on earth are carrots and baby carrots separate? They're the same thing! Ditto with crops like celery and spicy celery, or wheat and "tall wheat". Seriously? This is feeling dangerously like busywork again, Natsume.

We have yet to really find a compelling reason to farm, but with sprinklers and fences to protect our crops from storms, it hasn't really been too much work to just do it anyway — especially when several of the farms on the map (which you can switch between at any point) are locked into a specific season, letting you easily grow seasonal crop mutations.

Harvest Moon: The Winds of Anthos Review - Screenshot 4 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

That overwhelming variety also applies to animals, too. You can tame horses (boring), or you can ride zebras, camels, and dinosaurs; you can get a cat as a pet, or tame a wild ferret instead. Chickens are dull, why not get an Araucana, or ditch all your cows for a Bengal Tiger? It helps that all the animal designs are actually cute, too — more in line with the bubble cows of the past than the uncomfortably realistic designs of past games. And that's what we all want, isn't it?

Oh, and the NPCs are cute, too. Suffering from a case of same-face syndrome here and there, to be sure, but we'd still marry them... if we had any time. The huge map and the plethora of things to do make marriage a less enticing prospect — like we're going to keep burning precious daylight schlepping back to Judy or Neil to give them a single apple when we could be doing something else that makes us money? Nah. We're single farmers for life.

In the late game, things get both easier and much, much harder. Unlocking new animals and areas, as well as fast-travel points, gives both a reason for and a method to travel around the world. Later areas are hard to get to, and sometimes even require special items to survive the heat/cold, but it keeps the challenge going.

Harvest Moon: The Winds of Anthos Review - Screenshot 5 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

Unfortunately, the difficulty ramps up significantly. Quests keep requiring obscure items like Platinum and High-Quality Lumber without telling you how, or where, or even when to find them (as many items are season-specific). The frequent frame drops whenever you're on your horse (or zebra, or unicorn) are bad on their own, but when they start happening IN A HORSE RACE, making you lose first place, you'll want to make a call to the glue factory. Not being able to walk over small ledges is an outdated design decision, and most of the map exploration will revolve around trying to find the on-ramp to a bit of land without the map, because you can't unlock the map without first entering the area. And once you get to the volcano area, you'll curse whoever came up with the idea of building a maze that's darker than the inside of your eyelids and twistier than a pirouetting Flump.

All in all, despite the issues, Winds of Anthos is easily Natsume's best effort yet. It deserves to be counted amongst the plethora of pretty decent farming games. But Natsume can't hope to reach the heights of Friends of Mineral Town or Stardew Valley until it develops its own unique style further and irons out a few of the wrinkles that make the game a slog. It's so close, though, for the first time in ages... and that's truly worth something.

Conclusion

You most likely know that Harvest Moon has been pants for a while now, and Story of Seasons hasn't been much better. For those of us who've been burned before by Natsume's underbaked offerings, we weren't expecting greatness from Winds of Anthos. But for once, this newest game is a step in the right direction, establishing Natsume's voice at last in a crowded market. Here's hoping the next Harvest Moon goes even harder.